Lessons on Life and Work from Iron Maiden

“I have lived my life to the full, I have no regrets.”

Iron Maiden,
The Final Frontier

 

About three months ago I wrote an article called Marketing Lessons from Iron Maiden , which was a lot fun to do.

I had taken notes that didn’t make it into the article, because I thought they were slightly out of topic — and that they probably deserved an article of their own.

Here are the lessons on life and work that I’ve learned as an Iron Maiden fan.

 

Iron_Maiden_South_Africa_(180621293)
The famous Ed Force One during Iron Maiden’s Book of Souls tour

 

The Sky Is The Limit

One of the many amazing things about Iron Maiden is how they have continuously defied the odds throughout their 46 years together.

It’s a pretty common phenomenon among creatives — whether they’re musicians or writers etc. — to reach a point in their old age where they just aren’t producing good stuff anymore.

Let’s be honest, most of us might not be able to remember the last time we were genuinely excited to listen to a new release from veteran bands like The Rolling Stones or KISS.

So for many of these bands, much of the excitement comes from hearing them play their classic tracks over and over again.

But it’s certainly not the case for Iron Maiden.

They’ve surely had their droughts, especially during the 90s. It was a period of time when grunge music was surging in popularity, and to add to that, two of their key members, singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith had left the band. And what resulted were a few forgettable releases.

Yet, when Dickinson and Smith eventually rejoined in the early 2000s, they’ve been experiencing a creative renaissance ever since. They refused to rest on their laurels, and instead, they’ve explored ambitiously new soundscapes, and new concepts from literature, film, mythologies and world cultures from which they take inspiration.

As Dickinson said, “I don’t want to equal people’s expectations, I want to exceed them. This band is far better now than it was at its supposed peak. We’re going to be unstoppable.”

Another notable ambition they had was to tour in places around the world that were thought of by the management as “not worth going to”. They dreamed about traveling from one continent to another on their own aircraft.

And this has led to the creation of the Ed Force One, their own touring airplane.

It started during their Somewhere Back in Time World Tour in 2008, when they leased a Boeing 757. The plane was repainted and even reengineered so that it could carry all of their crew members and gear. Best of all, it was captained by Dickinson himself, who is a licensed airline pilot.

Iron Maiden has shown us that the sky is the limit. People were pining for their “good old days”? — they ended up creating albums that were far better than the ones they did during their early years.

Managers were telling them some countries aren’t profitable enough to play a show in? — they ended up planning their own itinerary, flying on a plane piloted by their singer.

 

 

Conflicts Are Inevitable 

Obviously, working in a team requires you to deal with the reality that other people are different from you. They have different work ethics, personalities, sets of strengths and weaknesses as well as creative opinions. 

What matters is how you can make all of those differences work in your team’s favor, while letting everyone’s strengths shine. 

In Iron Maiden, their primary songwriter and bassist Steve Harris is highly precise and deliberate in how he writes songs. He might borrow an idea such as a guitar riff from his band members, and he would often isolate himself for days on end and return with entirely finished songs. He would have the lyrics completely ready, and he would lay out intricate guitar, vocal and drum work that he wants his band members to learn, often causing their frustration.

“It’s funny,” said Smith. “Steve will have these ideas and then look at me, Dave (Murray, guitarist) or Janick (Gers, guitarist). The ideas are usually quite complicated, so sometimes you might see guitarists hiding away behind their amps, waiting for the others to take up the gauntlet and learn these super-complicated parts.”

Dickinson and Smith tend to write songs together as they are comfortable with spontaneity. As Dickinson said, “We jiggle and tweak things — it’s like a cross between a game of tennis and a juggling match — and we see what comes out. Steve is a lot more controlling about his stuff, it’s fair to say.”

While their differences were often sources of heated arguments in the past, they have learned to be respectful of them over the years. To them, their different strengths and weaknesses are truly a beautiful part of working in a team.

“Steve is very picky, but I understand his ways,” said Dickinson. “And over the years my voice has got fatter, and a lot more solid in the lower registers. Plus I’ve got new tonalities as I’ve grown older, and that has opened up a lot of new avenues of expression — which is exciting, for Steve as well as me, I think.” 

If you haven’t noticed, it’s also worth mentioning that Iron Maiden has three guitarists, because Smith’s replacement, Janick Gers has remained in the band even when Smith returned. And this has definitely added a unique layer to their tunes, even the older ones when they are played live. 

 

 

Having Many Interests Is A Godsend

Tragically, feeling emotionally empty is prevalent even among the most successful people in the world.

Because as Dickinson put it, when you have access to a lot of money and fast cars, “It is really easy to lose the plot and then come crashing into the buffers at some later stage in your life and realize that you are completely ill-equipped to function with anybody else except people in the world from which you came. The same is true for footballers, musicians or film stars. You can see why they go off the rails. They live in a bubble.”

To keep themselves sane in the topsy-turvy world of the music industry, they busy themselves with different interests. Most notably, Dickinson is an airline pilot, an international fencer, as well as an inventor and entrepreneur (he runs a brewing business and an aviation consultancy). Adrian Smith busies himself with fishing, and has even written a book about it.

Smith related emotional emptiness with touring, writing that, “After a while, touring becomes about survival — trying to get enough rest, good food, etc. You become pretty much a night animal, your body clock wired for 9pm and two hours on stage. 

“The time spent onstage is great, but the other 22 hours a day you need to live your life. For me that means going out to do something I enjoy. It’s good for your mind — as Billy Connolly said, ‘Fishing is meditation with a punchline.’”

Having many different interests is a blessing, not only because it keeps your mind healthily occupied, but because it can teach you valuable lessons that you can apply in your creative work.

For instance, Dickinson learned from fencing that that “there was no ending to it. Every opponent is different, and being an expert is no guarantee of success against an awkward beginner.” Flying on the other hand, taught him to “Be afraid and be scared”, but not panicked. Because “panic will kill you, not fear.”

 

 

Life Is A Gift

A recurring theme across many of Iron Maiden’s songs is perseverance — refusing to back down to fear, despair and regret, and having the dogged determination to move forward, to live your life to the fullest.

For Bruce Dickinson, one of the most challenging adversities that he had to deal with was surviving cancer. He described the moment when he was first diagnosed as though it was an “an out-of-body experience, like someone is talking to somebody else in the room”. It was hard to believe that he was facing cancer, that he might die.

For a while, all he could do was pity himself. But once he was able to stand on his own two feet, he decided to survive as best he can. He drew up plans for the future, as if he would surely beat cancer. 

“What happens when things go horribly wrong? You need to take a step back. What you must do is take a view and say, ‘What can I do? What can I do today that will make a difference?’”, he said in a TED talk.

He started seeing cancer as a gift, as it made him appreciate life so much more, that he was only going to be even more determined to turn his ambitions into reality. 

“What I’ve discovered is that it’s like nature’s cattle prod”, he said. “Suddenly, you think of ideas because you have to, and then you realize that when the world returns to what we perceive of as being normal, the ideas that you came out with when the world was not normal are pretty good in their own right.”

He is often asked if he would change anything in his life if he were able to. And his answer is always an absolute no.

“(Cancer has) made me change my view about living, which is that it’s not the space between living and dying. Living is living now, every minute, every second, for right now. Not because I think a bad thing is going to happen tomorrow, but because it’s worth celebrating. Life is just an amazing thing. That’s the little gift that it gave me.”

Just as he has sung in their song The Final Frontier, 

 

“If I could survive to live one more time
Wouldn’t be changing a thing at all
Done more in my life than some do in ten
I’d go back and do it all over again.”

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